Ex-Texas Ranger Makes a Comeback

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Bitterroot" (Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $25), James Lee Burke's latest novel featuring Texas Ranger-turned-defense attorney Billy Bob Holland, is as annoying as it is enjoyable. The enjoyment comes from Burke's brilliant use of language, his eloquent manner of describing places and their inhabitants, his perfectly tuned, precisely nuanced conversations, even his smartly orchestrated scenes of violent behavior.

The annoyance is the result of continued references to Holland's Big Sin (the apparently unnecessary killing of a bunch of banditos back in his Ranger days), his Big Mistake (the fatal shooting of his beloved partner, L.Q. Navarro) and his martyr-like determination to pay for these failings.

In Billy Bob's last adventure, "Heartwood," the plot was strong enough (and organic enough) for a reader to overlook all the mental meandering over old trails, but here, something happened to the story. Burke, who has a home in Missoula, Mont., seems to have started out with the idea of saying something about the way land developers are destroying the Bitterroot Valley. To that end, he sends his Texan hero there to visit Doc Voss, an old pal whose fierce brand of environmentalism is not winning him any friends.

As Burke would have it, a group of militant survivalists, including several murderous bikers, are somehow linked to the developers. The bikers brutalize and rape Doc's teenage daughter. When the rapist bikers are murdered, Doc is accused. Billy Bob will defend him.

Instead of moving in the natural direction of a trial in which the developer-survivalist connection is explored, the book heads off into Macholand. Suddenly, Wyatt Dixon, a bad-to-the-bone rodeo clown, and his murderous teenage "ward" hit town. Dixon hates Billy Bob, blames the lawyer for his sister's incarceration. Doc's trial is shifted to the back burner, along with Doc, his daughter, the pollution of the Bitterroot Valley, the murdered bikers and another inexplicable subplot involving a famous Louisiana mystery writer, his coke-happy wife and a local Mafia wise-guy.

The novel becomes a mano a mano revenge saga, with Dixon conjuring up new ways to torment Billy Bob and the lawyer trying to figure out how to respond to them. Burke transports Billy Bob's son, Lucas, and his gal pal, Temple, to Montana too, primarily to give the clown more victims to play with. An exhausting amount of the book is spent on Billy Bob's inner struggle, including his numerous conversations with the ghost of L.Q. Should he simply gun down the clown, or shouldn't he? L.Q. tells him not to, but, considering what happened to him, that figures.

One of the more chilling aspects of Thomas Kelly's tough, dark novel of New York-style union politics, "The Rackets" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 374 pages, $24), is the author's background. Kelly worked for the Teamsters and graduated from there to a key spot in David Dinkins' successful 1993 mayoral campaign. When he describes the cut-throat, amoral and, yes, criminal ways that political power is grabbed and maintained in the Big Apple, you get the idea he's writing with some authority.

Adding to that is an apparently natural gift for telling a story. Taking a leaf, consciously or not, from John O'Hara's classic "Appointment in Samara," in which a careless mistake alters the life of its protagonist, Kelly has his hero, Jimmy Dolan, give Teamsters boss Frankie Keefe a little push at a Gracie Mansion power breakfast. Keefe goes down hard, media cameras click, and Dolan, the advance man for a Republican mayor suspiciously like Rudy Giuliani, is not only out of a job, but also on the very bad side of Keefe and his brother-in-law/mentor, Mafia boss Tommy Magic.

An Ugly Election

Jimmy returns to his old neighborhood, rekindling friendships with best pal Liam, a Gulf War vet loose cannon, and former best gal Tara, a policewoman on her way up in the NYPD. Eventually, he is tapped to oppose Keefe in an election. That's when Kelly throws all the dark powers of the city against his hero--Italian mobsters, Russian hit men, Irish racketeers and as slimy a government snake as ever hissed his way through fiction. Is Jimmy victorious? With a novel as close to street level as this, sometimes it's hard to tell.

Giles Blunt's new suspense novel, "Forty Words for Sorrow" (Putnam, 344 pages, $24.95), is distinguished by a smooth, literary style, several smartly defined complex characters and chillingly described northern Canada winter settings. But, alas, these attributes have been squandered on what remains at heart just another cops-searching-for-serial-killer yarn.

The searchers are unique enough. John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay Police is a family man and an intelligent cop who's harboring a guilty secret. Prompted by bills for his wife's hospitalization (she's a depressive) and his daughter's education (she's a Yalie), he's taken a payoff for some sub rosa service. His partner, Lisa Delorme, is ambitious, sexy and hard-boiled and has her own secret: She's been assigned to investigate Cardinal while she's assisting him.

Too bad Blunt didn't stay with them and their interpersonal and procedural progress. Instead, he followed the current format of shifting back and forth from pursuers to pursued.

The villains in the piece are an all-too-familiar pair of sicko young lovebirds. The boy is the moody, homicidal product of a battered and painfully lonely childhood; the girl, an unhappy, mentally challenged loner thrilled at having found her soul mate. Filmmaker Terrence Malick told us all we really needed to know about this couple in his 1973 movie "Badlands," a fictionalized account of the homicidal love affair of killer Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate.

Since then, we've met the couple time and again in suspense novels, so often, in fact, that authors now apparently feel the need to express their creativity by taking their atrocities to a higher level. Blunt adds inventive touches in this regard. Great if you have the stomach for it. I don't.

*

Dick Lochte, author of "Lucky Dog and Other Tales of Murder" (Five Star) and the prize-winning novel "Sleeping Dog" (Poisoned Pen Press), reviews mysteries every other week. Next week: Rochelle O'Gorman on audio books.

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